The Yale men’s hockey team avenged its early exit from last season’s playoffs against Dartmouth last weekend, sweeping the Big Green out of the postseason. This weekend, the Elis have an opportunity to earn retribution for their premature departure two seasons ago against No. 2 Harvard.
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs travel to Cambridge, where they earned a hard-fought draw earlier in the season, to enjoy the hospitality of the ECAC regular season champions. The Crimson has won 10 consecutive games and will test Yale to its limits.
“[Playing Harvard] adds some motivation,” forward and captain John Hayden ’17 said. “We obviously didn’t have the success we wanted against them during the regular season, but most importantly we want to treat this like any other game. We feel we’ve been trending upwards and our chemistry has been building, so we’re excited for the weekend.”
After securing the top-seed in the conference tournament, Harvard earned a bye in the first round of the ECAC playoffs. The rivalry best-of-three series will therefore kick off the Crimson’s postseason run.
Boasting the second-best offense in the country, Harvard sends out five 30-point scorers every night. Forward Alexander Kerfoot leads the team with 37 points, while the Cantabs’ leading goalscorer, forward Ryan Donato, has 18 strikes among his 35 points. The Crimson also has the nation’s highest scoring defender, freshman Adam Fox, who has notched 27 assists that comprise the vast majority of his 32 points.
“This is the best Harvard team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “They’ve probably had some groups with better players, but they’re really playing together and working hard. It is going to be a really cool challenge for us. I like the comfort level that our guys have playing in playoff games, and there’s a certain feeling among the group that we’re excited rather than nervous.”
Harvard has netted five or more goals on 15 separate occasions and has been shut out only once by cellar-dwelling Rensselaer. In addition, the Crimson power play ranks fifth in the nation and created a pair of goals against Yale three weekends ago.
Staying out of the box has proven a challenge at times for the Elis, particularly in rivalry games. The Bulldogs have taken 21 penalties in their last three games against Harvard and Quinnipiac, including two five-minute majors. The Yale penalty kill has had its ups and downs this year, but the Elis will not have any success if they make a habit of rolling out the penalty kill for more than 10 minutes a game.
Harvard also netted a shorthanded goal against the Bulldogs when the two teams last played at Ingalls. Conceding goals when on the power play has been an unexpected Achilles’ heel for Yale this year. The Elis have given up seven shorthanded goals on the year, snapping a streak of power play kills that extended back to the second game of the 2013–14 season. Harvard has proven particularly adept at finding goals while killing penalties, as its total of 12 shorthanded goals dwarfs the next-best mark of nine.
Yale will rely on netminder Sam Tucker ’19, who won both games last weekend, to help stifle the potent Crimson attack. Fellow goaltender Patrick Spano ’17 played superbly in Cambridge earlier in the year and is also in the mix to start a game on the weekend. The Yale defense struggled to clear the zone and gave up a number of odd-man rushes against Dartmouth, only for Tucker to bail them out. Avoiding turnovers in dangerous areas and ensuring puck protection will be key for Yale, especially as they face a more clinical Harvard frontline that will ruthlessly punish errors.
“We’re going to try to slow down their very deep offensive talent with our solid team defense,” defender Adam Larkin ’18 said. “[Tucker] has been playing great lately in net, going into this weekend that will be huge for us. We’ll obviously need a great goalie to make some good saves. It’s just a matter of everyone being dialed into our defensive system and working together as a team.”
Against Dartmouth last weekend, Tucker saved 68 of 71 shots, continuing the Elis’ dominance of the Big Green. After annihilating Dartmouth by a combined score of 11–0 in the regular season, the Bulldogs cruised to a 6–1 series-opening win, before progressing to the quarterfinals with a 3–2 overtime success. Those results halted the season-ending malaise that had saddled Yale with six losses in its final eight games, including a 4–2 home loss to Harvard.
Balance and depth characterized the Bulldogs’ attack last weekend, a stark departure from the top-heavy offense on display in the regular season. Forward Mike Doherty ’17 was the star for the Elis last weekend, with his three goals surpassing his regular-season total. In all, seven different skaters contributed the nine goals scored. Maintaining that offensive balance will be a necessity for Yale to vanquish the favored Crimson, especially considering the questionable status of forward Frank DiChiara ’17, the team’s third-leading scorer who did not play Saturday after sustaining a hip injury on Friday night.
The Yale power play also hummed into gear in the first round. After a fallow 2-for-33 stretch that sapped the prior efficiency of the player-advantage unit, the Bulldogs found the goal three times with an opponent in the box against Dartmouth. With chances likely to be at a premium against a Harvard blueline that ranks eighth in the nation, the Elis will have to make all of their chances count, especially on the power play.
The Crimson defense allowed 2.21 goals per game and improved as the season progressed. Anchored by the stellar play of junior netminder Merrick Madsen, the blueline has conceded just 18 goals in its last 10 games. In its two head-to-head matchups with Yale, the Crimson has dampened the Bulldogs’ offensive firepower, giving up just three goals.
Yale and Harvard last met in the ECAC quarterfinals two years ago, and the Crimson won the deciding third game, 3–2, in double overtime.